For the sake of argument

life is better in Britain

HUGH MACLENNAN November 8 1958
For the sake of argument

life is better in Britain

HUGH MACLENNAN November 8 1958

life is better in Britain

For the sake of argument


This spring and early summer circumstances at last made it possible for me to revisit the Old Country. Ostensibly I went for a rest and a change, but also because I had been so long on this continent I was afraid I was losing my perspective. In England I discovered that this fear was well-founded.

Before I went to England as a student I never saw Canada at all. Now, back in England for the first time since the war, talking to the British and seeing them going about their work, I thought how far we had gone in Canada in these last twenty years. When I was first in England I felt like a provincial. I doubt if many Canadians can feel that way now. But this last visit to England and Scotland. together with the voyage on a British freighter, showed me pretty clearly that in spite of our gains, perhaps as a price of them, we have lost something, too. Or perhaps I should say we are in danger of losing something, and that if we wish to retain that something we would do well to learn from the example of England’s wisdom and experience. What I am talking about is our happiness and our mental balance, for both of these precious commodities are in danger in Canada and for a specific reason.

T riple tragedy

We are too much influenced by the current American state of mind, which all but swamps us. You may protest that there is nothing new or dangerous in this. You may answer, and be right, that Canadians have been conditioned by American attitudes for years with no harm done. But I am not thinking of the last half century but of the last decade; specifically I am thinking of the era which began when the United States entered the cold war.

During this time three developments have occurred in the United States which can only be called tragic. The first was a deliberate


exaggeration, for short-range political purposes, of the communist menace at home. The second was the decision—if anything so spontaneous could be called a decision —to rouse the public to action and a willingness to pay higher taxes by stimulating their fears. The third development, a consequence of the other two, was to create a kind of vested interest in fear and anxiety. No wonder the Americans have lost their sense of humor. No wonder they have become afraid not to conform. Tension of the kind which has been systematically developed in the United States cannot fail to warp the judgment even of those who create it. Each year the Alsop brothers sound more hysterical. Each year American foreign policy, sewed into a strait jacket by manufactured mythologies, becomes less capable of dealing with changing realities.

Exposed as we are in Canada to this constant American pressure, we too are in obvious danger of losing our sense of proportion, and with it our capacity for normal human happiness. That, I think, is the chief reason why we can learn so much from the example of the British.

Happiness, the atmosphere and state of mind which produces happiness, was what I rediscovered in England this year. That the British are happier than we are on this continent seemed so self-evident that it was the only thing I observed over there that struck me as important. Judged by material standards the British are not doing badly, but of course they are not doing as well as we. I don’t argue that their standard of living is higher, that they are more efficient or that their cooking is any better than it ever was. But happier they certainly are, and that much I understood within three days of leaving Montreal.

One day out of the Straits I was leaning on the rail watching the sea and was joined by an


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The American woman had forgotten what laughter sounded like

couple. There were only a dozen passengers on this vessel and life on a working freighter is extremely simple. After three days the passengers knew all the officers and quite a few members of the crew. Now, one day out of the Straits, we were all friends.

The American woman said: "You

know something? Until I got on board this ship I’d forgotten what real laughter sounds like.”

Behind us the chief engineer, a rubicund Lancastrian, was playing shuffleboard on a rolling deck with an old lady of Devon for his partner and the captain and a sturdy Manchester lass for his opponents. Shuffleboard is nobody’s idea of an exciting game, but if the ship rolls enough, and the deck is tacky enough, it can at least be unpredictable. A great bellow of laughter came from the Chief as an accidental shot knocked two counters off the numbers and placed itself into the ten. The captain grinned, the Manchester lass smiled all over her round face and the old lady from Devon looked marvelously content.

“Who's winning here?” said the American husband of the lady.

“We don’t know yet,” said the Chief.

“So far as 1 can tell, nobody’s winning,” the captain said.

We turned back to watch the sea and the American woman said: “Look at them! Not one of them can afford a

car. I’ve talked to them and I know their homes have none of our conveniences. But listen to them laugh!” Then she said something I thought rather profound: “How can we expect people to like us when it’s so obvious that for all the things we’ve got we’ve forgotten how to enjoy ourselves?”

Each morning on that ship a steward brought me tea while 1 was still in bed. He was a stocky Mancunian with a shock of black hair, a huge fund of anecdotes and a merry expression all day long. The American woman, who had become obsessed with this spectacle of English cheerfulness, began to speculate about h i m.

“Maybe it’s the welfare state they’ve got over there? Or maybe he just doesn’t know what the world’s like?”

A few days later, talking with the steward, I learned that his knowledge of the Middle East was wide and detailed because he had served in the British Army during the years of trouble between the Zionists and the Arabs before the creation of the state of Israel. I also learned that he had been a paratrooper and was the sole survivor of a family of five brothers. His four older brothers had all been killed in a single week at Arnhem.

“The American lady would very much like to know why you’re so cheerful,” I

shire accent. “That’s a new one. When I get in Manchester I’m going to be out of a job.”

“Have you got another one lined up?”

“Not yet.”

As I roamed through England and Scotland I realized that I was in the midst of something impossible to prove with facts and statistics and very difficult to describe. The human animal is so adaptable that he quickly accepts as normal whatever state of mind he finds himself in. If need be, he can even persuade himself that a concentration camp is normal. A man can live an unsatisfactory life for years without being really aware of it, just as he can live an entirely satisfactory one without realizing his good fortune. Happiness anti unhappiness, content and discontent, are the products of two things: health and a state of mind. The latter, and sometimes the former as well, are to a considerable extent conditioned by the environment in which a person lives.

As it seemed to me so obvious that the British environment was more conducive to happiness than our own, and much more than the American, I spent much of my time over there trying to discover why. I think I found a few answers.

The most obvious is that the British, along with the Scandinavians and quite

a few other European groups, are in better physical condition than we are. I don’t mean that they are more immune from disease or that their deathrate is lower; I mean merely that their muscles and internal organs are tuned up with daily exercises as ours seldom are. While 1 was motoring through the Highlands I passed dozens of men and women of all ages hiking along in the rain carrying heavy rucksacks, and for a while 1 used to stop and ask if I could give them a lift. They all refused, and one young woman said firmly that if she had wished to drive in a car she would have come in a car. While in London I walked an average of ten miles a day, first because the bus strike made it necessary, but afterwards because I enjoyed it. Everyone walks in England, and everyone who gets into the habit of walking enjoys it. On three country weekends I walked respectively twelve, nine and fourteen miles with my hosts, who walk like this every weekend when they escape from London. We would set out in mid-morning and walk to lunch in a pub. Then, reinforced by a pint of bitter, we would walk in the afternoon and get home in time for tea. We felt wonderful.

In North America the activity of walking has practically disappeared, and this is certainly one of the many casualties of the famous standard of living which is turning us into a race of consumers. On this continent you may walk in the cities if you like it, but in the country it is almost impossible to walk. There are not enough walkers to beat down paths through the woods and across the fields, and if you try walking along one of our highways you will probably be killed by an automobile.

The second reason why the English are happier is a mental one. They are less afraid. I don’t mean they are any braver than people on this continent, but it is pretty obvious that anxiety is something they consciously try to avoid. For this state of mind there are several discernible causes.

One is certainly the British experience during the last war. In 1940 the whole nation consciously faced extinction; it looked death in the face and stared it down. During the war a shared danger gave to all people in the British Isles a feeling of common humanity they never had before. And the loss of their empire. combined with the loss of so much of their wealth, relieved them of two enormous breeders of anxiety.

The modern Englishman rarely identifies his sense of his personal value with his material possessions. With his abilities, yes; but not with the kind of house he lives in or the kind of car he drives. He is almost as snobbish as he ever was, he is still a gamesman, he can still be exasperating, but with the loss of so many of his material possessions he has become much less of a materialist than he used to be. Not poverty—he is not poverty-stricken—but a loss of excessive wealth is certainly one of the things which has contributed to England’s postwar happiness.

A Scotsman manufacturer admitted to me that in the 1930s almost everyone he knew was miserable at the thought of what the coming war was going to cost him. Even if Britain survived the war, large personal fortunes would not survive it. The pound would decline, investments would be eaten up, material security would be consumed. All these things happened. But life and freedom survived the war unencumbered by the old anxiety of coming loss. The man w'ith little to lose is inevitably happier than the man with much to lose.

Still another reason for the more tranquil atmosphere of modern Britain is the behavior of the British press, magazines and advertisers. I would be the last to argue that the average British newspaper is better than ours on this continent. The average British newspaper—the kind the masses read—is so trivial that there are only two newspapers in the whole of Canada that can be compared with it. The popular British press is in the entertainment business and deals almost exclusively with private scandals, gossip about the Royal Family and prominent persons and very often gets itself slapped with a heavy libel suit for inventing a scandal out of whole cloth.

But at least the popular British press is not a salesman of fear, as the American press largely is. Serious papers in the United Kingdom have small circulations and by our standards are dull. Frequently their dullness is simply the result of their honesty. Their editors

know they are writing for a small public which is fairly well informed about national and international affairs and will not be amused if they pretend that the latest claptrap uttered by a politician has any real importance. Papers like The Times are not crisis-conscious unless the crisis is a real one. The day I left England I saw in The Times the headline, Mr. Macmillan’s Reply to Mr. Khrushchev. On my return to Canada I found an old paper which ran the identical story with the identical words Macmillan had used. But the headline in the Canadian paper was Macmillan Hurls Challenge at Khrushchev.

The situation in advertising is almost, if not quite, similar. British advertising is beginning to look more like American than it once did, in the sense that sex and pretty girls have now invaded the advertising market. But the American appeal to fear—buy this car or you’ll lose your wife, use this toothpaste or you'll get pyorrhea — is almost totally lacking. The most famous of all British ads is still the simple reiteration: Guinness Is Good For You.

One afternoon at the end of my stay in England I was spending a weekend on the Solent and my host was speaking of his son, who at that moment was in

Cyprus doing his army service. Clearly he was concerned about his son, but I had been with him for twenty-four hours before I even guessed that he was.

“It’s a thoroughly nasty business,” he said, “and God only knows how it can be settled.”

“Do you think it can ever be settled?” I asked him.

“Frankly I don’t.” Then he gave me one of those shrewd looks of which Englishmen of his class and education are such masters. “Very few things in life can be settled—don’t you think that’s so? I think perhaps one of the reasons why the Americans are so upset is their feeling that if you don’t settle things you’re a failure. They’re up against insoluble situations for the first time and they blame themselves because they’re failing, and that becomes intolerable to them so they transfer all the blame on the Communists. God knows the Russians aren’t making things easier, but life was difficult before them, you know."

“The last time you were in the States, did the Americans seem unhappy to you?”

“I wouldn’t care to answer that, but I do know this. After I'd been in the States for a fortnight I was worrying about all sorts of things I never worry about here. An American said to me I’d been living in a fool's paradise. I felt like saying to him—I didn’t of course—that it’s probably better to live in a fool’s paradise than in a fool’s hell.”

He asked me if I’d care for a spot of gardening, and for the next two hours we weeded. We replaced our tools in the shed and sat down feeling we had earned our beer. Then suddenly I saw right in front of me—it had been there all along and its duplicate was in every English garden I had seen — the too perfect symbol of the very phenomenon I had been admiring.

My host’s tool shed was an old airraid shelter built in 1939, and in addition to holding his rakes and shovels and hoes and fertilizers, it was also covered with roses. Peace roses — the Peace climbs in England—tumbling over the grim brick of an air-raid shelter.

"Yes,” I murmured, “a fool’s paradise this may be, but I like it.”

But I also noted another aspect to this symbol: the shelter was still there, along with thousands of others in modern England. The British are fully aware that the time may come when they will need them again. They are just as conscious of the possibilities of a nuclear war as anyone else. But to live with the knowl-

edge of an unpleasant possibility does not necessarily commit you to live in constant fear of it. If you know something, why endlessly remind yourself of it? Especially when you also know there is little you can do about it.

A few days later I was in an aircraft homeward bound and the stewardess brought me the magazines. Almost instantly I had the feeling that I was leaving a peaceful land and returning to a continent in a state of war. One United States magazine confronted me with the grim face of an American admiral, another with a general even grimmer. We Are In Mortal Danger, was the message for the week, and another noted general had written another article to prove it. I turned to a two-day-old copy of a New York paper and the Alsops were still at it. Bastions were falling all around the free world. Every day we became weaker while every day Russia became stronger. Time was running out. Though it is self-evident that if ICBMs are used all life on this planet will be destroyed, we are in mortal danger because we haven’t enough of them. So it went, the familiar self-contradictory refrain of the cold war.

Yes indeed, I thought as I put the papers and magazines down, indeed we are in danger. I am in danger right now. If this plane blows up—and why shouldn’t it? — what chance have I of surviving? If I keep on smoking cigarettes, what is the percentage increase of my getting what still another magazine, with undoubted accuracy, assures me I have a one-in-ten chance of getting?

The plane soared steadily through the fog toward Keflavik, put down in the rain and took on a few more passengers. One of these was an unconscious man on a stretcher, an elderly New Yorker who had worked hard all his life, had lived under strain all his life as his wife’s face, despite her grief and anxiety, clearly showed. He had striven and labored— she told me so—all his life in order that the day might come when he would feel sufficiently secure to be able to afford to enjoy living. That day had come two months ago, and this hard-working, honest and absolutely decent couple had bought tickets for a world’s cruise. Their first port of call, apparently, had been Reykjavik, and there the poor man had been stricken with a coronary.

Life was always dangerous, and though now it is longer than it used to be, it is still brief. Is it necessary so to long for an unreal security, so to strive to leave nothing undone to prevent unfore^ seeable catastrophes, that we stain that gift of life with this constant dye of fear and anxiety? -jc